Fungus firelighters and mushroom biros
Fungus is both deadly poisonous and nourishing, healing and toxic but this kingdom can off much more than just food and poison. Taking a look at mushrooms other uses can be a safer way to explore the fifth kingdom. Wrongly identifying a specimen can just mean your pen wont write or your fire won’t start rather than a slow agonising death.
Cramp Ball Fungus – Fungus firelighters
Cramp Ball fungus is known by a host of other names including King Alfred’s cakes, Daldinia concentric, Coal fungus and Narren Scheiße. It’s a very common fungus to be found on dead and decaying wood. They are little black ball shaped things, almost looking like a dollop of hard animal poo. Normally around 2-10cm across, brown when younger and becoming black. King Alfred’s cakes can be seen all year round on dead Ash or Beech.
To harvest simply knock off the wood, they sometimes take a couple of taps. I tend to use a pen knife to prize them off, but a gentle whack with a suitable stick will work too. As with all fungus only take what you need as many insects call cramp ball their home and you don’t want to become the David Cameron of the natural world!
Although not edible cramp ball fungus can come in handy for the bushcrafter in need of food or at least fire. They would have been used by our ancestors as fungus firelighters and even to carry fire around. This is because of their ability to smoulder. Catch a spark on their underside and it can smoulder away for hours. They are very useful to use in conjunction with a fire steel, spark the steel, catch the spark on the underside of the fungus and blow. Use the smouldering fungus to start a fire.
It is said too that you can carry this fungus around in order to take your fire with you, not having a fire retarded pouch to keep my smouldering fungus in I can’t say either way if this works well. I will say however, that King Alfred’s cakes are indeed great fungus firelighters. I was even asked once to send a load up to the tree sparse Orkneys!
Shaggy ink caps – Mushroom biros
I call this the housing estate mushroom as that is often where is it to be found; well on the edges of estates on grass verges it also goes by the name of Lawyers wig or in Latin Coprinus comatus (which I think means hairy dung). But if I were to give it a more appropriate name then the urban mushroom would work too as, like most urban foraged plants, it is a lover of disturbed grassland.
To be found from April-November shaggy ink caps are pretty distinctive and as described by Josephine Bacon in her excellent mushroom guide, “they have an ovoid cap that never expands. It is thickly covered in shaggy white scales, except at the very top, where there is a large brown scale. The flesh is white, and the long crowded gills are pink when young”. They are about 10-20cm tall and the cap is 2-6cm.
Shaggy Ink Caps are edible but being over cautious I tend to steer clear of them as there is a faint possibility that they will react with any alcohol in my system. Although, as I’ve said this is me being over cautious as the common ink cap Coprinus atramentarius L. is the main culprit for violent reactions to alcohol.
To turn into ink first remove the caps from the stems of mature blackening specimens and place them into a clean jam jar. Leave the jar(s) in a shed, out house, lean to or anywhere out of the rain and away from people who might complain about the whiff. After a few days the mushrooms will have liquefied and can now be used as ink. Use a quill if you are feeling medieval or a paint brush if you are feeling slightly more modern.
Feel free to leave a comment if you have experimented with the above or have used mushrooms for anything else other than food. Or to find out more about wild food why not book on wild food foray with Andy?